Admitting students who later drop out is harmful

Tertiary degree completion rates in the United States are middling compared to other OECD nations and many other developed and developing economies. While troubling, the justifications are too familiar.

Ever increasing tuition and other fees have discouraged many well-qualified aspirants. Low unemployment has siphoned off applicants. The aggregate number of recent high school graduates applying for tertiary admission continues to decline. All are true.

I suggest that the root explanation is that the financial challenges faced by many smaller US institutions – Tuition Dependent Institutions or TDIs – prompt them to admit applicants found to lack the academic preparation to succeed in tertiary education.

US TDIs tend to be non-elite smaller institutions without multiple revenue streams. They, like their more financially secure cousins, annually bear increasing expenses exacerbated by annual price inflation. TDIs have long responded with tuition fee increases moderated by admitting ever more applicants.

Financially secure institutions employ relatively high selection criteria and hence admit the bulk of college-ready applicants. To attract their requisite tuition revenue, the TDIs have relied on relatively low selection criteria.

Many employ an open admission policy only requiring a secondary school diploma or General Education Development certificate. When tested post-admission many matriculants present a lack of the mathematics, reading and writing skills required for academic success.

In contrast, many Asian, European and Latin American tertiary education institutions employ more selective indicators of academic readiness. Most employ mandatory national exams and other indicators to assess readiness. South Korean universities employ interviews.

Remedial studies

In the US, matriculants at TDIs presenting basic academic skill deficiencies are usually required to take one or more remedial classes depending on the depth and breadth of their deficiencies.

Nearly 40% of those taking one or more remedial classes depart the institution before the start of their second year. The need to replace them further lifts the need for ever more matriculants in the following admissions cycle.

With demographics no longer sustaining financial planning based on annual enrolment growth, continued reliance brings sustainability risks. Moody’s has recently predicted that the number of small private college closures will increase.

US TDIs have several options before them.

They can attempt to weather it out, hoping for better demographics or become proactive. Those choosing to stay the course will only stay possible closure.

Mergers have been increasingly portrayed as a sure path to sustainability. Mergers promise potential cost savings. They include shared back-office functions, course cross-listings, shared facilities and consolidating duplicate programmes, among others.

But there are three potential downsides to merging institutions. One, locations, demography and sponsorship raise a host of challenges. Two, unless their combined retention problem is addressed, they are likely to continue to haemorrhage enrolment. Three, mergers may bring a loss of brand and identity to one or both, losing applicants.

Lower enrolment

Instead of merging, I suggest a contra growth strategy: lowering enrolment goals to more sustainable levels. TDIs should consider admitting fewer students to build a sustainable budget.

They are already losing nearly 40% of their matriculants requiring remediation within their first year. Those applicants most likely to require more than one year of remedial coursework should receive deferred admission, pending presentation of requisite placement scores. They might be referred to an associate degree institution.

This action should produce seven positive results:
  • • The institution retains its brand intact.

  • • It will allow it to maintain its admissions policies at a lower cost.

  • • Its retention rate should improve and lessen the need to constantly replace students.

  • • It will lower remediation expenses by eliminating one year of remedial courses. Resources saved could be used to enhance support services to matriculants requiring one year or less of remediation.

  • • It will save the time, money and debt of those students presenting the highest likelihood of dropping out within their first year.

  • • Since low-admission policies give the common schools tacit permission to grant diplomas to students lacking fundamental academic skills, it will send a signal to feeder secondary schools that their graduates are no longer assured of admission unless they present the skills implied by a diploma.

  • • It is the ethical course to follow.
There will not be a sudden implosion among the TDIs. By contrast, pursuing the current path brings the probability of an increase in the number of TDI closures coupled with the financial and emotional harm done to applicants most likely to withdraw from their studies within their first year. If they are unable to get past their first year, they are unlikely ever to graduate.

William Patrick Leonard is a senior fellow at the Rio Grande Foundation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States.